Roseanne, Racism, and the Problem of False Dichotomies
EDITORIAL, 25 Jun 2018
Note: the ABC Network canceled the revived sit-com, “Roseanne,” after its eponymous star, Roseanne Barr, tweeted a grossly racist insult about former Obama administration chief of staff Valerie Jarrett. “Roseanne” was a comedic series about the adventures and mishaps of an American white working class family.
It is difficult to talk sensibly and accurately about the role of racism and xenophobia in Trumpland. The latest sign of this is an article in The Nation by Edward Burmila, who writes that the Roseanne Barr affair gives the lie to media efforts to explain the socioeconomic basis for Donald Trump’s support among many white workers.
“Roseanne is inseparable from this quest to find evidence that Trumpers are ultimately good, kindhearted people whose fears and economic insecurity are being exploited by a charlatan,” says Burmila. “Journalists and researchers are now finding that the veneer of ‘economic anxiety’ among Trump supporters is built on a foundation of hate.” In his view, the masses support far-right regimes like Trump’s because they are authoritarian racists, not because they are suffering economically or in any other way.
How should a sharp-eyed editor deal with this one-dimensional approach to a complex problem? First, in large red letters, write in the margin the words FALSE DICHOTOMY. People are not either racists and authoritarians or the victims of exploitation and insults; the problem is that they are both.
American working people have been taught for generations that when things go badly for them, they are expected to exonerate their social “betters” and blame their “inferiors.” This means seeking consolation and justification in racial, nationalist, and religious solidarity rather than challenging a system dominated by billionaires and their political toadies.
As Burmila correctly asserts, many Americans are eager and willing to follow Donald Trump’s lead. But this is not because their suffering and insecurity is a mere “veneer” disguising a “foundation of hate.” Trump defeated Clinton by capturing six industrial and semi-industrial states that Obama won handily in 2012. In all these states, deindustrialization, wage stagnation, job insecurity, and the social ills accompanying a depressed economy were major issues.
Still wielding the red pen, our editor should then write the query SOURCES? next to the author’s statement that “journalists and researchers” have discovered that Trump supporters are really racists and xenophobes rather than economic and social sufferers. I have seen no studies that would support this peculiarly angry and despairing either/or.
Burmila is surely right to suggest that racism and xenophobia are implanted in American culture. But his take on Roseanne ignores the fact that these feelings are learned responses to a social crisis – responses that the Democratic Party’s peculiarly classless brand of identity politics has done nothing to mitigate. Hillary Clinton’s three-point response to the crisis – defend the status quo, raise the minimum wage, and diss the “deplorables” – virtually guaranteed the triumph of Trump’s ugly right-wing populism.
Learned responses can be unlearned, to be sure – but only if we find ways to help fellow-sufferers identify the real causes of their suffering. Like the Roseanne show, Burmila’s approach stops way short of this goal. You can’t call out the racists and xenophobes without also calling out the capitalist elite.
Rosa Luxemburg was right. A century after her death, the choice that confronts us still is “Socialism or Barbarism.”
Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. His recent book, Resolving Structural Conflicts, was published by Routledge in 2017.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Jun 2018.
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